Nationals GM Mike Rizzo has received ample praise for the recent deal that brought Doug Fister to D.C. from the Tigers. And for good reason: as Rizzo put it, the towering righty was "an undervalued asset."
I already explored some of the strategic and philosophical approaches that the Nats' GM successfully employed in pulling off the deal, including the packaging of players whose perceived value has skyrocketed of late. With the benefit of reflection, however, the true extent of Fister's value to Washington appears even greater than at first glance.
Others have pointed out that a better infield defense (and the lack of a DH for the opposition) could benefit the groundball-inducing hurler's ability to prevent runs. But there are also several strategic mechanisms by which Fister brings enhanced value to D.C.
The first relates to the possibility of negotiating an extension with Fister. As I noted in my earlier piece, the two-year exclusive negotiating window now open for Washington is valuable in and of itself. Extensions are the only way to capture excess value from established, high-level big leaguers, and the rights to negotiating them are a nice asset.
But that holds all the more so in this case, given the Nats' array of starting pitching. Washington already has one starter inked to a long-term contract in Gio Gonzalez. And the club has other relatively young arms — primarily, Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann — that are plenty good enough to command their own new deals. But Strasburg is represented by Scott Boras, who (it hardly bears repeating) has tended to lead his premium clients onto the open market. And Zimmermann is now, like Fister, within two seasons of free agency, reducing his incentives to sign and driving up his price.
Fister's presence among D.C.'s slate of extension-worthy starters gives Rizzo options and leverage. If the club only plans to extend a certain number of its arms, then he can effectively compete his offers between his three top starters. If Rizzo has designs on extending all of those who are willing to talk, then he can legitimately point to limitations on the club's future payroll pool. And if some of the three are determined to test the market, he'll have better odds to lock up a reasonable deal with the remainder.
Even more importantly, perhaps, Fister becomes a replacement arm in the club's long-term plans if either Zimmermann or Strasburg suffer injury or performance decline. For a team that has designs on competing in the near term while setting itself up for a long run of success, a major injury at the wrong time could derail careful planning. (Indeed, I just discussed how the Tigers have navigated that kind of situation.) Now, Fister offers another potential long-term piece, which is especially important since both Strasburg and Zimmermann already have had Tommy John surgery.
Somewhat relatedly, Fister leaves the Nationals with immense flexibility for the 2015 offseason and beyond. In addition to Ross Detwiler, the Nationals have a host of other potential starters percolating through the system: Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan, Nate Karns, Sammy Solis, A.J. Cole, Jake Johansen, and Matt Purke. (Oh, and then there's top overall prospect Lucas Giolito, who is just 19 but could soon be knocking on the door.) By adding the last two years of Fister's arbitration eligibility, instead of a long-term contract with a free agent, Rizzo ensured that he will be able to promote cheaper options from within if they prove ready.
Indeed, it is certainly within the realm of possibility that good seasons from some of those just-mentioned arms could make Fister a trade candidate next year. It bears noting, of course, that one of the club's other top starters could instead be shopped. Asked about that possibility by FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, Rizzo acknowledged that a trade was always possible if extension talks did not work out. (links to Twitter.) If that happens, given Rizzo's track record for value-based dealing, it would not be shocking to see him get back nearly as much in prospect value as he gave up to get Fister in the first place.
Of course, even if Fister proves to be a two-year rental, he appears highly likely to warrant a qualifying offer that will net a draft pick if he (or, say, Zimmermann) walks. Any big league return on that pick would come well into the future, but it is no mean consideration.
In the end, of course, the best deals are those where a player can bring additional value to his new destination. That appears to be the case with Fister's switch to the Nationals, both on and off the field.